REVIEWS by SULLYDOG
A Film by Peter Boyle
For the audio version of this review, go to Escape Pod
Warning: this review has been exposed to the hot sun for too long, and may contain spoilerage.
When I was in junior high, one of my science teachers, lecturing an unruly class about the incomprehensible energy of our sun, waxed poetic. "The sun," he said, "is really, really hot. So hot you wouldn't believe it. It's so hot it would just burn up anything."
At which point, like the 13 year-old nerd I was, I asked if maybe you could get some sort of liquid-nitrogen-supercooled probe with a reflective shield within striking distance of the surface.
He shook his head, clucked at me indulgently, and said, "No. It's just too hot. The sun would laugh at it." And then he laughed at me.
Now, I've seen Peter Boyle's new sf thriller, Sunshine, and the scars are finally healed.
The setup of Sunshine is simple. About fifty years from now, global warming skeptics are doing a superiority dance, but everybody else is screwed. The sun is dying, and Earth is frozen in a solar winter. One mission to the sun, unfortunately christened Icarus, has been lost. Tempting fate, the Earth has sent Icarus 2, a massive ship with golden reflectors on its forward end, to deliver a bomb incorporating all of the remaining fissile material on earth to heart of the dying star. The makers of "Sunshine" don't tell us why the sun is going out, or how a nuke the size of Manhattan is going to kickstart it. But by the time you're five minutes into this movie, you don't really care how the bomb could work, or even that the sun would laugh at it, because the beautiful cinematography, friable characters and the growing sense of dread have already sucked you in. The film starts with a breathtaking image of Icarus 2, already so close to the sun that you say "uh-oh." The characters, who have been en route to this thermonuclear hail-Mary pass for 17 months, apparently succumbed to cabin fever about, oh, 16 months ago, and all of them are starting to look seriously squirrely. Our chief protagonist, Cappa, the physicist in charge of designing, maintaining and deploying the bomb, looks more like the bass player for a Nirvana cover band than a scientist the world would trust to save humanity. This guy's not old enough to have defended his dissertation yet. It's immediately apparent that the crew's psychiatrist has a screw loose. And the ship has just entered the part of the mission where proximity to the sun will render further communications with Earth impossible. You haven't even made a dent in your popcorn when you realize that this mission is already hopeless.
Then things really start to get tense.
There's virtually no respite from the growing sense of dread and imminent failure that unfolds from this setup. There's no comic relief, no roller-coaster set pieces, no gratuitous sex to give us time to unwind our muscles and calm down. What follows is two hours of relentless, one-goddam-thing-after-another, deeply claustrophobic, harrowing and ultimately very silly sf storytelling that will leave you a bit drained, a bit disappointed, and a bit hopeful about the state of sf cinema.
That's because the first two-thirds of Sunshine does its job so uncomfortably well. Passing through the orbit of Mercury, the crew of the Icarus 2 discovers a distress signal from the first mission, and decide to alter course to investigate. This decision is not arrived at lightly, makes more sense than you might expect, and, also as you might expect, leads immediately to a series of frightfully plausible and beautifully filmed catastrophes. But as much as I enjoyed the images of the slow unraveling of the Icarus 2 spacecraft, I enjoyed Boyle's depiction of the crew's unraveling even more. Boyle's characters are entirely human, and respond to each new crisis as humans--with pettiness, stupidity, sheer terror, desperation, grit, cowardice, heroism and sacrifice. And of course, that's Boyle is really interested in doing here--taking a handful of diverse, desperate, committed people, sealing them in a tin can full of razor blades tacked to a firecracker, putting the whole mess in the microwave on HIGH, and letting us watch what they do. And he does it very well.
Until, that is, the last half-hour or so, when, just as you begin to think that director Boyle and writer Alex Garland have made the best science fiction movie of the last ten years, they screw the whole thing up by allowing it to devolve into a monster movie. It's such a glaring, stupid turn that I just can't imagine why they did it. My wife put if far more eloquently than I ever could when she said, "Why in the hell did they have to bring Freddy Krueger into it?"
Why, indeed. You tell me. Boyle had everything going for him with this flick--a great setup, arresting visuals and solid actors. Cillian Murphy may be too young to play Capa, but he acquits himself well. Cliff Curtis, the Asif Mahdvi lookalike who plays the twitchy psychiatrist, turns in a haunting portrayal of a guy who's continuing to perform even while he's going quietly bonkers. Hiroyuki Sanada, the Japanese actor who won the heart of America by beating the living bejeezus out of Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, just doesn't get enough screen time as Captain Kaneda--a man who knows the odds are against him and goes about his duty anyway with stoic, understated gravitas. With characters like these in a situation like this, you don't need a hoary B-movie trope to explore the extremens of human responses.
Sunshine pays clear tribue--or at least owes it--to two classics of sf cinema: Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and Ridley Scott's Alien. From Kubrick, Boyle has brought gorgeous and exacting cinematography, the existential dread of man's exposure to a vast and violent universe beyond his control, and the particulars of a disaster or two involving airlocks. And of course you can argue that it was Alien that brought to sf cinema the sensibility that real spaceflight is cramped, scary, difficult work that's about as glamorous as being a building superintendant. With a setup like Sunshine, you could do a lot worse for source code than Kubrick and Scott. Why the filmakers had to throw Wes Craven into the mix I will never understand. Do go to see Sunshine, on the big screen. You'll be glad you did, but you'll leave the theatre with a little sting of regret, for a film that flew within striking distance of greatness, but didn't quite make it.